The Vatican and the Sisters
The bells of St. Mary’s haven’t been ringing for some time now.


George Weigel

“Minimal requisites” is no exaggeration. As Bishop Blair’s analysis of the LCWR’s assemblies makes unmistakably clear — and from materials readily available from the LCWR — there is very little in the Creed and the Catechism of the Catholic Church that is not up for grabs in the LCWR’s world: the Trinity; the divinity of Christ; the sacraments; the constitution of the Church as episcopally ordered and governed; the very idea of “doctrine”; the notion of moral absolutes; the nature of marriage; the inalienability of the right to life — Catholic teaching on all of these is not infrequently regarded in the LCWR and among its affiliated orders as impossibly old hat because of that teaching’s alleged linkage to “patriarchy.” That doctrinal implosion, further influenced by feminist leadership theory of the woolliest sort, set the stage for the tortured re-readings of poverty, chastity, and obedience to be found in the extensive literature that shapes the theological imagination of many of the sisters in LCWR congregations, those congregations’ leadership, and the LCWR itself.

And here is the next, great irony: In their determination to be countercultural, many LCWR-affiliated sisters have become precisely the opposite, parodies of political correctness who embrace every imaginable New Age “spirituality” and march in lockstep with American political progressivism as it has defined itself since the Sixties. Thus the sisters formed in the LCWR cast of mind are not at all countercultural. In public life, it’s the pro-life cause, which they largely eschew, that is the real counterculture. And in religious life, it’s the dynamic orthodoxy of post–Vatican II, post–John Paul II Catholicism — the Church of the “New Evangelization” — that poses a dramatic and demanding challenge to the soggy “spirituality” of postmodern America; many LCWR sisters, for their part, regarded John Paul the Great as a hopeless misogynist and never forgave his 1994 apostolic letter reaffirming that the Church is authorized to ordain only men to the ministerial priesthood. The Catholic Church that has stood fast against the Obama administration’s encroachments on religious freedom is the real counterculture; the LCWR, for its part, has become very much part of the progressive establishment.

The shock in all this, therefore, is not the shock the LCWR unpersuasively confessed when the Vatican decision to take it into receivership was made public. The shock was that the Vatican had finally acted, decisively, after three decades of half-hearted (and failed) attempts to achieve some sort of serious conversation with the LCWR about its obvious and multiple breaches of the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Acts two, three, and four in this drama are not likely to be pacific. Given the LCWR’s self-understanding as an evolutionary (or revolutionary) vanguard challenging the patriarchal evils embedded in the Catholic Church’s forms of governance, it is not easy to see how the LCWR can accept a situation in which a man — Archbishop Sartain — will guide the revision of the organization’s statutes while making the final decisions about the topics to be discussed and the speakers to be chosen for LCWR annual assemblies. Immediately after the public announcement of the Vatican action, Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., a leading exponent of the LCWR worldview, said flatly that “there is only one way to deal with this . . . they [the LCWR] would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group.” Whatever else it may have conveyed about her ecclesiastical sensibility, Sister Joan’s reaction had the virtue of honesty. The LCWR and many of the sisters in its affiliated congregations have been living for decades in what I have come to call “psychological schism”: While they remain canonically inside the Church’s legal boundaries, they nevertheless adhere to “another God” and seek “another mountaintop.” Sister Joan’s immediate reaction honestly recognized that and drew the curtain on a long-running charade.

To be sure, a self-dissolution of the LCWR would create any number of problems. It might well provoke payback in the form of congregations of women religious taking their health-care systems even farther out of the orbit of Catholic life and practice. That, in turn, might lead to all sorts of legal unpleasantness. But that is almost certain to happen in any event, for the dying of the LCWR orders is going to lead to an endless series of legal battles over property originally given to the sisters on the understanding that they were an integral part of the Catholic Church.

Thus, if the LCWR refuses to accept the Vatican’s decision and dissolves itself, the realities of the situation will be clarified. And that would be an improvement over the muddle — created in part by the resistance of the sisters and in part by the fecklessness of Church authorities — that has gone on for decades. A clear delineation of who stands on which side of the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxis, which are not infinitely elastic, would have a cleansing effect. 

And that cleansing might, just might, be the beginning of authentic reform among the once-great orders of women religious in the United States that are members of the LCWR. That reform would not aim to re-create the lost world of The Bells of St. Mary’s. It would aim at the further development of forms of women’s religious life — already being lived in orders that are not members of the LCWR — that make their own unique contribution to the culture-forming counterculture that is the Catholicism of the New Evangelization. 

— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.